Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thinking about Design Thinking for the First Time

At the recent ACSA conference, I attended two professional development sessions on the topic of Design Thinking. Prior to this forum, my experience with Design Thinking had been limited. As a principal in the Bay Area, I know of more than just a few schools beginning to implement elements of Design Thinking into their students' daily experience. Still, as someone new to the concept, I was looking forward to an introduction to these concepts and determining if it was something worthwhile to bring to our school campus. After attending both sessions with a cadre of fellow educators, the question isn't whether or not to bring Design Thinking to our campus but instead how and when.

At our first session, two educators (Alyssa Gallagher and Kami Thordarson)  from nearby Los Altos introduced the concept of how to encourage students to be designers of their own learning. They began with an introduction to Design Thinking, highlighting how student voice is something overlooked in today's schools. The presenters shared the five steps of Design Thinking, beginning with Empathy.

  1. Empathy is the first step to understanding the problem and remaining open with a good bit of curiosity to find solutions. 
  2. Define was next - and this is where you need to start opening your mind to to unique solutions and answers. One needs to get into the heads of the eventual users with layers of context and meaningfulness embedded. 
  3. From there, what I think is the most crucial step occurs: Ideate. Here, you take what you've begun to mentally build and start deciding what it is you want to create. It can be as simple as a list of ideas with every answer being considered. I see the Ideate step as a very inclusive step that builds upon the Empathy and Define steps from earlier. The last two steps overlap somewhat: Prototype and Test
  4. In Prototype, the team shares out the ideas as quickly and briefly as possible with the understanding that everything here is a rough draft. 
  5. Ending in Test, the final products and/or ideas are presented and more discussion is held. Test isn't necessarily the ending as there is a natural healthy cycle to the Design Thinking model.

As with most dynamic presentations, our table of four (three teachers from our school plus me!) didn't just sit for the duration of the session and instead were challenged to find ways to provide our students to have more voice at our school. We started relatively slow with the process, something that the presenters hinted may happen. Given the opportunity to build upon the ideas of our peers, we started to brainstorm idea after idea. Here's a sample listing:

  • Why don't we have video announcements at our school?
  • Could students design professional development for our teachers?
  • What do our students want their electives to be? Shouldn't we survey them ahead of time?
  • How can we get our students more involved in community service projects?
  • What is the best way to have our students show their academic and social growth of their years at our school?
Our team left the session energized and excited to implement many of these ideas. Even more so, our interest in Design Thinking was piqued -- how can we try these kinds of activities with our staff and students?

Fast forward to the following morning where more of our team participated in our second introduction to Design Thinking, this time led by a team of educators from Menlo Park including the reigning California Midd School Principal of the Year, Erik Burmeister. The Menlo Park team began with an overview of Design Thinking ("a proven an repeatable problem-solving protocol that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results" per Fast Company) and shared their involvement therein over the past few years. Menlo Park has worked closely with the Stanford D School and have led parent informational nights on the topic. They explained how Design Thinking worked for them and how it could work for our school. Next, it was our time to experiment with an activity of our own -- and this led to the most fun of the entire conference.

I was working with my fellow school educators with instructions to build "an area of play" in response to the needs presented via video from three middle school students. Again, the process began slowly as we were unsure of how to best incorporate all of the requests into our cardboard design. At this point, we were told to introduce at least one item worth more than a million dollars to our project. We paused. Were they serious? What's the point of adding something that we weren't going to be able to produce? And that's when it became obvious how Design Thinking works: You need to list every possible solution you can think of regardless of available funds, location limits, or collective abilities. This is your time to stretch your way of thinking and to explore those ideas that were always the first to be easily dismissed. Our team, after the initial shock had worn off, began to add creative, even silly, elements to our structure. A "water elevator" was built and the building's sun roof could also serve as a trampoline. Upon completion, our group seemed to exhibit pride in our work despite our design resembling something a passerby would deem as foolish. Together, however, we worked as a team, building upon each other's ideas, to construct what we felt was the best "area of play" in the room. Mission accomplished!

What's most impressive of the work Menlo Park is doing with Design Thinking is their planned schedule for later this early Spring. For one week, Menlo Park shared that they're suspending their classes and instead allowing their students to choose their area of study. Perhaps they'll choose rock climbing or photography or how to effectively coach a football team. The key element here is how they're allowing students to drive the selection of activities; the students themselves are in charge of their own learning. This is Design Thinking in its purest form and I'm looking forward to hearing the student responses to the experience.

Our next steps as a school community is to continue to introduce more staff members to the concept of Design Thinking. From there, we'll explore how we can adapt the concepts into our daily school practices. It's also very likely that our staff will spend time creating their own "area of play" during an upcoming staff collaboration time. To me, Design Thinking just makes sense. As educators, we are always looking for how to best encourage and support our students. With the upcoming shift to Common Core standards, there will be a need to have our students share and experiment with their ideas, to be able to not only defend their work but also creatively adapt changes into their parameters. With Design Thinking, our students can accomplish these goals by actively becoming involved in their own education.


  1. This is really interesting, thanks for sharing! It made me think of a TEDxTeen video I saw last night (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uq-FOOQ1TpE). An 11-year-old-boy who was diagnosed with Autism. Jacob Barnett did not fit into 'learning' as we know it. He says we should stop learning, start thinking, create. When Jacob had to stop learning in the conventional way, he developed a passion for numbers, astrophysics...he has accomplished so much in his chosen field, at the age of 11! It is incredible. We are not all geniuses like Barnett, but it does not take much to realize how our children excel when given the chance and support to thrive in their own passions, when they are encouraged to look at things with 'their own unique perspective way' ;)

  2. I think Design Thinking is such a great idea! It sounds like a super great way to get the kids engaged in their own learning! And the direction it should take!

  3. I am very supportive and excited about this thread. Anything that encourages kids to take more ownership of their education will help to make it more effective for all involved. And I loved that one of your examples was about public service which I think most of our kids could benefit from! Thanks - Suzy

  4. Thank you for your comments. I too am really excited about Design Thinking and look forward to bringing it to Union Middle in the hopefully not-too-distant future. Please do check out the other blog postings -- comments are appreciated!


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